Basal forebrain cholinergic neurons (BFCNs) modulate synaptic plasticity, cortical processing, brain states and oscillations. However, whether distinct types of BFCNs support different functions remains unclear. Therefore, we recorded BFCNs in vivo, to examine their behavioral functions, and in vitro, to study their intrinsic properties. We identified two distinct types of BFCNs that differ in their firing modes, synchronization properties and behavioral correlates. Bursting cholinergic neurons (Burst-BFCNs) fired synchronously, phase-locked to cortical theta activity and fired precisely timed bursts after reward and punishment. Regular-firing cholinergic neurons (Reg-BFCNs) were found predominantly in the posterior basal forebrain, displayed strong theta rhythmicity and responded with precise single spikes after behavioral outcomes. In an auditory detection task, synchronization of Burst-BFCNs to the auditory cortex predicted the timing of behavioral responses, whereas tone-evoked cortical coupling of Reg-BFCNs predicted correct detections. We propose that differential recruitment of two basal forebrain cholinergic neuron types generates behavior-specific cortical activation.